Bandai Namco’s renowned Ace Combat series is all about flying fighter jets, blowing things up and the political machinations of rival governments. As is now tradition, Ace Combat 7 sees the eternally warring nations of Strangereal once again entering into a conflict that you’ll spend half the game trying to grasp. The kingdom of Erusea declares war, utilising unmanned drones to attack neighbouring Usea and nearby Osea, which all follows on from an earlier conflict that came as the country was plunged into chaos after being overwhelmed by refugees.
Where did those refugees come from you might ask? From those nations shattered by the asteroid that came plummeting to Strangereal prior to Ace Combat 4, of course! Just to help keep things as clear as mud on a foggy day, one of those countries was called Erusia with an ‘i’, and frankly if you can remember which of the countries you’re in, fighting against or fighting for – alright, it’s Osea – then you should be feeling pretty good about yourself.
Whether you fully understand the overarching tides of war, Ace Combat 7 does a fantastic job of making you feel like you’re right in the thick of it. News snippets from fictional TV channels bookend many of the missions, along with a selection of decent cutscenes that aim to personalise the drama and which will send fans of Strangereal’s mythology into a tizzy. This time out you take on the role of Trigger, an Osean pilot who manages to get himself sent to prison for murdering the former president. Those flying skills prove too useful to be ignored though and you’re soon enough back in a cockpit again, though your call sign seems to be “Murderer” more often than “Trigger”.
This is all dressed up in the best visuals the series has ever seen. The aircraft on all sides look fantastic, while the landscapes laid out below you actually have height, depth and texture, and feature buildings that are made from far more than a handful of polygons. There’s some seriously arresting locations, and when they’re tied together with cloud, high winds, rain and lightning it all comes together beautifully. Fans of the series will definitely appreciate how far we’ve come.
It even sounds brilliant. It’s chock full of bombastic themes that will make you think you’re in Top Gun, though there’s no Take My Breath Away and definitely no You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling. Still, the score works incredibly well to bring you into the action, helping to ramp up your heartrate at the right moments, or doubling down on the more thoughtful moments in between. There’s also near-constant communications chatter during missions from your squad-mates that really helps keep the intensity up when you could start to feel like repetition is setting in.
This being Ace Combat, the vast majority of the game will see you using your aircraft to shoot various things, whether they’re airborne or down on the ground. There’s some variety to be found in the missions, such as avoiding radar detection or trying to blast your way to a high score by destroying everything in sight, but if the Ace Combat brand of airborne combat hasn’t caught your attention in the past, this outing isn’t likely to change your mind. Either way, this is the tightest action the series has ever seen, and hours of challenging thrills can be had as you burn a trail of destruction through the sky.
There’s a bunch of different aircraft and weaponry to unlock in the Aircraft Tree, which you unlock by performing well in missions and earning points. You start off with a perfectly acceptable F-16C and expand your hangar from there, but while new craft might be better at certain aspects you can always choose to upgrade your favourite fighter with different parts to keep it competitive.
The PS4 version has an ace up its sleeve – yes, I went there – and that’s the PSVR mode with a bespoke storyline and set of missions. If you’re lucky enough to have Sony’s VR headset you’re able to jump into the cockpit of an F-16 and physically become a top gun pilot. That is, if you’re not prone to motion sickness. Ace Combat 7 in VR looks incredible, sticking you in a realistic cockpit and allowing you to read the situation by being able to look in every direction (every single time I did this I heard Tom Cruise shouting “I can’t see him, I can’t see him”), but its utterly lacking in comfort options and that really hampered the experience for me.
Project Aces obviously feel like they’ve made the best possible Ace Combat VR experience, but it feels as though if you can’t handle the speed of the turns then they’ve not been willing to sacrifice any of the series’ trademark action. They’ve done their best to give you distinct items to lock onto, with directional markers helping you find the enemy, and the cockpit doing a good job of enveloping you in a solid location, but, in my case at least, it simply wasn’t enough.
The motion feels especially strong in Ace Combat 7, stomach-lurchingly so, and after one mission my head was swimming and my body was doing a decent job of providing the pool. It’s a massive shame, as PSVR support is likely to be a big selling point for a lot of people, but they’re going to have to be prepared that they may not be able to handle it. At five missions it’s much bigger than something like Battlefront 2’s X-Wing VR experience, and fans will lap up the return of Ace Combat legend Mobius, but that might only be making things worse if your stronger-stomached friends are having fun with it.
If you’re feeling queasy you might prefer to dabble in the online multiplayer modes, and while there’s only Team Death Match and Battle Royale, going up against other human beings is a step above anything the impressive AI can throw at you. There’s a real sense of cat and mouse, though it feels as though there’s going to be a point where everyone is flying the same aircraft and using the same weaponry sooner or later.
It’s nice that – barring a few items – your aircraft hangar and upgrades transfer across between the campaign and multiplayer, and the points you earn in either can be funnelled into them, so it all feels like you’re making progress into one whole rather than two disparate elements of the same game.
In Ace Combat 7 dogfighting games have a new Top Gun. The VR sadly turned my stomach, but the series’ trademark action is bigger and better than ever, with the spectacular weather effects introducing a level of realism and drama that will win over any wannabe Mavericks.
Version Tested: PS4 & PSVR – also available for Xbox One and PC